Route Finder: Tempting Grays and Torreys from Summit County, Part 2
August 26, 2016
I felt a surge of determination as I headed into the crisp morning light far below Grays and Torreys peaks, the twin 14ers on the eastern edge of Summit County. This was my third attempt — and I was going to summit today.
After two tries at this, the rarely used Horseshoe Basin trailhead was starting to look mighty familiar. In my first article about hiking the peaks — it traced the steps of attempts one and two on my first visits to a Colorado 14er — I spoke of pursuing the summit from the Horseshoe Basin trailhead. This strenuous, cairn-marked trail was the route I tried again for my third attempt.
Starting once again from the Shoe Basin Mine, I set out on a very familiar trail. Crucial to this route-finding excursion was having my friend, Greg, by my side again. Greg had hiked with me on my previous attempt at reaching the summits.
Kevin, a Colorado native with numerous 14ers under his belt, joined us and was helpful in navigating the trails, too. The first half-hour was easy — straightforward. We walked through small streams, gradually gaining elevation after starting around 11,110 vertical feet.
In less than an hour, we had reached the back of Horseshoe Basin and came across a very recognizable divergence in the trail. The trail split leading left and right around a small alpine lake. On the previous attempt we bore right, which Greg and I both confirmed this time around.
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Testing new routes
We decided to hang left on this attempt, heading toward steep alpine tundra in the distance. At the base of the alpine tundra were large rock cairns. We saw this as a good sign — other hikers had obviously been here before. Along the tundra were the dustings of social trails, yet nothing maintained.
Every five to 10 minutes I would stop to turn my gaze out at the ground we had covered so far. With every step forward one landmark would recede and others would materialize.
A small mining structure I could see earlier was now tucked behind the gentle curve of the hillside. Simultaneously, a trail system unfurled far below and another turquoise-colored lake appeared.
For nearly 45 minutes we climbed the alpine meadow, which itself was a carpeted trail. It was a straight shot leading us right to the rocky array of the false summit. This portion didn't require much route finding, just patience and sure-footedness as we gained elevation.
Upon periodically looking back at our route, I often realized we had been on a faint trail — but hadn't known it. The trails here were spotty: at times obvious, at others almost nonexistent.
The false summit
At the top of the tundra the terrain became much rockier and a trail became more apparent. Instead of many faint, wavering paths, there seemed to be a single distinguished trail. The trail gave way to scree, snaking steeply up the mountainside.
For a short period of time we moved through loose rock. As we climbed higher, the rocks became much larger. These furniture-sized rocks sat before us, requiring occasional handholds to maneuver up the face leading to the false summit.
Similar to rock climbing, strategic hand and foot positions were important, and it was a puzzle moving through these enormous rocks with no designated route. This part of the trek was extremely physically challenging, equitable even to the exertion needed to reach both true summits.
After following routes completely on our own, the three of us topped out along different places of the false summit's ridge. And what a surge I felt as I took one more climb to the ridgetop: Below me was the breathtaking, wide expanse of Chihuahua and Stevens Gulch.
If topping the false summit brought about this kind of reaction, I began to imagine what it would be like to finally set foot on Grays itself. We hadn't passed a soul the entire time — no one to ask, "How much longer?" or "How is that last push?"
Until blurred white movement stirred my attention. Mountain goats paraded around the slopes of the summit and gave me a focal point to move towards. The steepest portion of the day was ahead.
The final, hardest strides
Using the outside edges of my hiking boots, I dug into the steep trail as best I could. Traction was hard to come by, and I was relieved to borrow Kevin's trekking poles for the last push. The repercussions of a mere slip on this loose trail would be nowhere near forgiving.
Kevin and Greg set the pace for our ascent. On our way up we passed a man who was coming off Grays, having summited the peak from Horseshoe Basin earlier. His car must have been the lone other vehicle at Shoe Basin Mine, I thought.
As I neared the top of the peak, I could hear the voices of those basking in the summit sun. I felt a sigh of relief through my entire body: I had reached Grays after the third and final attempt.
I spun in circles, a goofy grin plastered across my face as I took in the view. Horseshoe Basin, my old friend, was well below us now. Summit County glistened far in the distance, surrounded by mountains on all sides.
I felt a familiar satisfaction in this change of perspective. Now, I was looking down at Summit County extremely far below, standing atop the mountain I had been dreaming of for months. It was an accomplishment — a marking of time — to feel my soles touching down on the summit.
One summit isn't enough
As if Grays wasn't enough, we strode down the saddle to Torreys. The push to Torreys was just as tough as Grays: scree and loose trail. The summit here was even more crowded than its sister, with many mountain goats adding to the population.
Missing the solitude and remoteness we felt on the Summit County side of these peaks, Greg, Kevin and I headed back across the saddle. Summiting Grays one final time made the trek even sweeter.
Three summits in the span of about six hours — not bad in my book. Although my pack wasn't much lighter, I felt such ease on the return down the basin. I was fulfilled: I had set foot on the peaks I'd dreamt of.
Each day I can now look at these peaks and smile, knowing I've been to their summits. I've gained a new appreciation for Grays and Torreys — their strength, fortitude and everyday presence in my life in Summit County.
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